Infectious diseases are a huge threat to public health: especially those that spread easily. Ebola, for example. This viral disease kills 90 percent of the people it infects, passing from person to person through even very limited contact – simply touching the corpse of an Ebola victim is enough to spread the disease.
Because it can be transmitted so easily, Ebola outbreaks are extremely concerning to health care advocates in both the site of the outbreak and around the world. If an outbreak cannot be contained, a huge number of lives are put in danger – and unfortunately, an epidemic is occurring right now.
Across Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone, more than 1,000 cases of Ebola have been reported since the 23 of July, and 672 of those cases have resulted in death. Fatalities have included local adults and children, as well as physicians from at home and abroad. At least two health care workers from the United States have tested positive for the Ebola virus, and aviation officials in nearby West African countries have been instructed to screen incoming passengers for evidence of the disease.
Ebola is frightening to health care officials for its ease of transmission and fatality rate – facts frighteningly apparent in Ebola-stricken communities. In fact, fear over the disease has caused what some are calling a secondary health care crisis: scared of the deadly, quick-spreading illness (that can even be transmitted from dead to living), some people have blamed Western medicine for Ebola’s devastating effects.
On Monday the 28 of July, the New York Times reported that foreign physicians were being treated with fear and hostility by local communities convinced (by rumor, and by area witch doctors) that their mysterious disease is being caused by outside influences. Health care workers say they have been barred from entering some villages and clinics, and have even been threatened with sticks, stones and mobs trying to keep foreigners away.
Unfortunately, this lack of trust has meant that many villages don’t have access to medical and diagnostic care, potentially exacerbating the spread of Ebola. Villagers may instead turn to local, nativist health practitioners: which health care advocates say is extremely concerning. In at least one case, an Ebola patient received insufficient treatment in one village, was declared well and then sent home to another village, taking his still active Ebola infection along. Untrained health workers may also be unaware of how to prevent Ebola, failing to inform villagers that contact with the sick must be avoided completely – even if they’ve already died.
Burial rituals in many parts of West Africa include close contact with the dead, practices which health care workers say must be stopped until the Ebola epidemic has passed. Unlike many viruses, Ebola doesn’t just spread through blood or oral-fecal routes: it can also pass from one person to another through bodily secretions such as sweat, meaning that transmission can occur during even limited contact with an infected patient or a once-infected dead body. To reduce their chances of contracting the disease, health care workers will normally wear full body suits along with protective masks and gloves. Such outfits are very effective at stopping Ebola transmission, however local communities may be fearful and untrusting of foreign doctors with such unexpected appearances.
If misunderstandings between foreign doctors and local people continue, health care advocates fear that Ebola may quicken its spread. Last week in the West African town of Kenema, protesters gathered outside Sierra Leone’s largest Ebola hospital and threatened to burn the building down: upset at rumors that the Ebola epidemic was a rouse invented by Kenema doctors seeking to cover up their own cannibalistic rituals. Doctors Without Borders has already reported that its group is unable to attend to patients in 12 Guinea villages due to concerns about violence against foreign health care workers.
There is no treatment for Ebola and no cure, and the only known method of preventing the disease is to avoid all contact with humans and animals carrying the virus. The World Health Organization (WHO) has called for “drastic action” to fight the current outbreak of Ebola in West Africa, fearing that the health care crisis could soon spread. To prevent this, international health workers along with regional leaders are working to promote education and medical interventions. President Ernest Bai Koroma of Sierra Leone has said that his government is introducing a new strategy they hope will stop Ebola within the next three months. The plan includes a renewed focus on communications, which could mean more publicity for facts about Ebola: what the disease is and how to stop it.
With better public education, health care workers say there is a good chance of preventing the Ebola outbreak in West Africa from spreading further. Prevention through avoidance of contact with the sick is key, and educational campaigns also warn at-risk communities to stay home if they are ill: no ceremonies, no events, no interaction with large groups of people. Caretakers are reminded to call a specialist as soon as possible, and to protect themselves with facemasks and gloves before attending to a sick friend or family member.
Ebola is powerfully fatal and transmissible, but it is also preventable. With improved education and better conditions for health care workers, advocates are hopeful that the Ebola epidemic in West Africa will slow – but if it doesn’t, more than a few countries may find themselves at risk of populaces contracting this highly spreadable disease.